30 August 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 8, from Mühlehorn to Näfels

Time: 3 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 520 metres
Height loss: 510 metres

Mühlehorn – Obstalden – Filzbach - Näfels

While not the most exciting walk I have ever done, this short stage at least has the merit of being more interesting than the previous one, and consequently of getting me back into a better frame of mind regarding my Alpine Panorama Trail project. It’s a hot, sunny day, the kind of day when really I should be getting up above 2,000 metres and doing some serious mountain stuff, but I have a ticket for a concert in Lucerne at 18:30 and will need to get back in plenty of time to get showered and changed, hence the deliberate decision to limit myself to a short walk.

Lacking the motivation to get up earlier than 7:30, I don’t make it to Mühlehorn until quite late into the morning. The heat hits me as soon as I leave the air-conditioned cocoon of the train: 32 degrees are forecast for what, the newspapers happily inform me, will be the last weekend of summer weather. One more would have been nice…

Pretty much all of the day’s climbing is done in the first 45 minutes’ walking. Up through the narrow lanes of the village, between houses whose gardens are colourful with flowers in front of the blue-green backdrop of the lake. The traffic noise of the previous stage is noticeable by its absence; the motorway down below has disappeared into a long tunnel. Above the last houses, I continue steeply up a forest path that soon has me drenched in sweat; the heat is really quite extreme. It’s not long though before the gradient becomes easier, as I reach the upper end of the belt of woodland and head across fields to the hamlet of Walenguflen, at a modest altitude of 683 metres.

At the edge of the forest near Walengufeln
In its description of this walk, the Rother guidebook notes that it is not recommended for anyone who is scared of dogs, which suggests to me that the path probably passes through numerous farmyards. As I approach the scattered houses of Walenguflen, a dog does indeed start barking furiously, but remains invisible. Each time the dog barks, it is answered by the crowing of a cockerel, also unseen. In fact, the only visible sign of animal life is a grey stripy cat, which sits in the shade in front of one of the houses and looks at me in a totally uninterested way as I walk past. A little further on, another dog barks from another house: this one is in the garden in front of the house and would clearly love to have a go at my legs. Frustratingly for the dog – and luckily for me - it is attached to a chain, and can do no more than exhaust itself while trying to get free.

As I follow the narrow lane westwards from Walenguflen, I hear a shout of "Achtung!" behind me, and half expect to see a pack of unchained farm dogs heading my way. But the warning shout comes from the first of a group of about fifteen mountain bikers – mostly children – who are hurtling down the lane towards me. I move aside onto the grass verge… but several of the kids have decided to go for an adventurous approach to their bike ride, and are also off the road rather than on it. Somehow the all manage to miss me, and disappear off down the hill. Two minutes later, at a point where my path branches off left from the road beside a house, I see the bikers toiling back up the hill again, much, much slower and less carefree now… they missed the turning. I smile inwardly as they pass me again, at a much more sedate pace now. The grassy path leads me pleasantly on towards the village of Obstalden. On the minor road that runs parallel to the path lower down the hillside, a procession of about 15 vintage cars of different shapes and sizes, mostly open topped, chugs slowly past.

The Dorfbrunnen(village fountain) in Obstalden
Obstalden is a pretty little place, compactly grouped around its church tower and a village square with a large drinking fountain. I refill my bottles, replacing this morning's now warm tap water with much colder water from the fountain. The main street has many attractive old houses; on a fence beside one of them, a municipal notice informs passers-by that anyone found piling snow up against the wall of the house or the fence will be fined 500 francs. Luckily, the temperature is up in the thirties, so any temptation to break the law by chucking a few shovelfuls of snow against the house is soon snuffed out. I continue along a minor road lined with more houses, every one of whose garden seems to be competing with its neighbours for the number of different types and colours of flowers on display. Obstalden leaves me with a very nice impression, as the road turns to another grassy path that runs horizontally across the hillside, with lovely views across the lake to the mountains in the distance. A tourist information sign tells me that this very agreeable path has been in use since Roman times.

Obstalden and the Walensee
As I reach the first houses of Filzbach, the next village, I get my most challenging doggy encounter of the day. From nowhere, two metres in front of me, a huge St. Bernard emerges from a garden gate and stands in the middle of the path, very obviously protecting its garden and asking me what I'm going to do about it. I move ahead slowly, making sure not to look the dog in the eyes, and also making sure that I keep it between the garden and myself. It moves closer to me and, as I pass it, gives one very loud and very deep WOOF… then, apparently satisfied that it has won the game, it lets me go, standing there and looking at me just in case I change my mind.

The Walensee seen from between Obstalden and Filzbach
Filzbach, though pleasant enough, is strung out along the roadside and does not have quite the character of Obstalden. I arrive there just as the clock on top of the school building starts to strike midday. A sign on the wall of a building offers "Adventure Minigolf". I wonder what the difference is between this and normal minigolf… do you do it while swinging from tree to tree or abseiling down vertical cliffs, I wonder? The vintage cars go past again in the other direction; this time, their ranks have been joined by a very large, white Rolls-Royce and a very flashy, green and black Porsche which does not look remotely vintage, and whose driver clearly just wants to show off. I have to walk for a good kilometre along the road before another path drops away to the right, leading down the hillside into woodland. 

Although I have been walking for barely two hours, it feels like lunchtime. The map seems to show a likely looking clearing about ten minutes ahead, but when the path emerges from the woods, the clearing turns out to be a scrubby, untidy field full of cowpats. One very large, dark grey cow has decided to stand in the middle of the path, and there is no way of skirting around it. Will it be friendly, or is it going to want to protect the three calves that are further down the field? I approach it slowly, tell it that it's a nice cow (which I'm sure it is), and it lets me pass within touching distance, not moving an inch but not showing any signs of aggressivity either. Eventually I climb up onto an embankment above the path, where I find a spot that has no view but at least offers plenty of shade. Rather than my usual, lazy sandwich option, I have prepared a salad of lentils, sausage and tomatoes, which makes a nice accompaniment to a hunk of Apenzeller cheese. The motorway must have come out of its tunnel, because suddenly that annoying background traffic noise is back.

I set off again and, within five minutes, come to what would have been a much nicer place to stop and eat: a large, grassy, cowless clearing with, in its centre, a huge tree which seems to have decided that autumn is already here, as its leaves have already turned yellowish-orange. The path continues for a while through thick forest, briefly re-joins the road, then forks off again to the right and begins to descend more steeply.

Signs of autumn in the Brittenwald below Filzbach
New views open up now: the Churfirsten, which have been the predominant mountains of the last three or four stages, disappear for good as the path turns into the valley of the Glarnerland. Up ahead now, the main feature is the Rautispitz above Näfels while, further away, the 2900-metre Glärnisch is the highest mountain seen so far since the start of the walk on the shores of Lake Constance. Northwards, there is a long view along the industrial Linth plain, which I have been desperately trying to avoid for the last three stages. The path winds pretty down beside a stream; dry and dusty, I slip and almost fall several times as loose pebbles give way beneath my feet. Eventually I reach the bottom, and emerge onto the path that runs along the east bank of the canalised Linth river. The last half hour of the walk follows the river in a straight line upstream; it could be considered monotonous were it not for the occasional diverting sights. Just in front of me, a large heron appears suddenly from the grass and flies off above the river. A rubber dinghy with a family in it floats towards me, the father deliberately seeking out the patches of (very minor) white water, the children shouting in mock fear as the boat splashes its way off downstream. The heat is intense, and I am quite glad that I don't have to go any further when I reach the railway station at Näfels. Up above the little town, steep slopes lead away to westward-running valleys: this is where I will be heading for the next stage of my walk. 

23 August 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 7, from Walenstadt to Mühlehorn

Time: 4.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 785 metres
Height loss: 780 metres

Walenstadt – Oberterzen – Quarten – Murg - Mühlehorn

After two weeks away on a wonderful hiking holiday in the Tyrol and the Dolomites, this weekend I am back on my Lake Constance to Lake Geneva project. Having well and truly deviated from the official national route No. 3, I am now faced with two shortish stages along the south side of the Walensee, before two more mountainous stages will take me over to the Wägital and Sihltal valleys, and so on to Einsiedeln to re-join the official route.

It's a pleasantly warm morning as I catch the train to Walenstadt, but you can see from the sky that it's not going to last. The dominant blue is broken up by patches of torn, grey cloud, dislocated from some larger nebulous mass by winds at altitude. The Föhn is blowing and rain is forecast for the afternoon and for tomorrow, before another spell of hot weather begins on Tuesday.

The walk does not start in the most auspicious way: tarred lanes, shabby farm buildings, the constant noise of a busy motorway and military keep-out signs accompany me as I leave the lakeside town. Walenstadt is a garrison town, and today there will be constant reminders of the fact as the path skirts, and sometimes crosses firing ranges, luckily not operating on an August Sunday. At the edge of a forest, there is a field of still small calves. One of the calves has somehow managed to get itself on the wrong side of the electrified fence, and is standing in the middle of the path, mooing plaintively at its companions in the field. One of them moos back in encouragement (or possibly it's taking the piss?); the others clearly could not give a damn… cow society reflecting humanity, I wonder…

The Walensee
I climb up through patchy forest, the morning still polluted audibly by the noise of the motorway and visually by high-voltage power lines. This side of the Walensee has clearly lost out in the environmental stakes, with electricity, road and rail links all concentrated in a narrow strip of flattish ground between lake and mountainside. The way becomes temporarily prettier as the gravel track gives way to a path that runs along the edge of the woods, and the noise diminishes as the motorway disappears into a tunnel away below. A signpost tells me to turn right, then another one confusingly tells me that this path doesn't go anywhere, and that path is only allowed to be used as a diversion when firing is going on at the range. 

After a couple of hours' not very inspiring walking, I reach the village of Oberterzen, halfway stage of a cable-car line from the lakeside up to the winter sports resort of Flumserberg. I make a mental note for another time: up there, beyond the top cable car station, there must be some nice walking country.

Meanwhile, as I try to find my way out of Oberterzen, I m confined to road walking: the path marked on my map leads into private property and no longer exists. At the roadside, a sign informs me that this is a mushroom preservation area, and that picking mushrooms is limited to 2 kilos per day per person… that sounds like an awful lot of mushrooms to me! I follow a twisty lane uphill; it's not unattractive but it's still road walking. I look for a suitable place for lunch, but all the fields are blocked off with electric fences, and in the end I resort to a roadside bench overlooking a tumbledown old barn with an unusual chimney. Another path marked on my map turns out not to exist in reality, and I am forced almost 200 metres higher along the lane, at which point I have to drop down again on a steep, gravelly path to the village of Quarten.

Quarten is a nice little place, less developed than Oberterzen, with extensive views across the lake to Quinten on the far bank. Whether there is any link between the Quarten – Quinten names or whether it is pure coincidence, I do not know.

Sadly, the remaining hour and a half of the walk is all on roads, and becomes progressively less attractive as I go on. I follow a lane downhill between green fields, until it eventually brings me to the lakeside village of Murg. If Quarten was pretty, Murg is ugly. Clearly a place with an industrial past, it is bisected by the railway in one direction, and by a river flowing over a bed of red rock in the other. Some of the old industrial buildings have been converted into flats (or "lofts" according to the signage); others stand empty waiting for a new lease of life. There are also quite a few terraced houses, clearly old workers' cottages, and it makes me wonder what industry exactly made this place tick a hundred years ago.

Now the path sticks close to the banks of the lake. I am passed by numerous cyclists, which makes me think that it would not have been a bad idea to do this leg of the walk by bike; an idea that I will try to remember if there are any similar stages further on. The lakeside path would be idyllic, were it not for the incessant noise of the motorway in my left ear and the occasional passing of trains, also in the same ear. Despite this, there are houses – presumably expensive ones – between the path and the lake. Top prize goes to one big house where, in addition to the noise pollution, there is the stink of a sewage treatment plant right next door, despite which there is a family sitting in the garden having a barbecue. How anyone could live in such a place defeats my imagination… but then I live next to a railway line where a train passes every 2 minutes, so maybe they just get used to the noise as I have. 

Looking across the Walensee to Quinten
The last kilometre before Mühlehorn is very unpleasant. The lakeside path is being rebuilt and is closed; a diversion is in place for cyclists, but walkers have drawn the short straw. I climb up above the railway, following the diversion signs, but then have to walk for a quarter of an hour along a main road with no pavement, sandwiched between a mountainside and metal crash barriers. I arrive back in Lucerne and emerge into pouring rain. Walking home from the station is only the second time this year that I have needed my rain gear… the other time was also walking home from the station! 

Not ideal for walkers...
  Clearly, the designers of national trail No. 3 were faced with a problem after reaching Amden: how to transition from the eastern Swiss Alps and the Churfirsten to central Switzerland without imposing at least one day of motorways, hard surfaces and lack of mountain scenery on walkers. Hopefully, the next leg over the Kerenzerberg to the Glarus valley will be more interesting. As for today: the Tyrol and the Dolomites, it most certainly wasn't.

Previous stage

26 July 2015

Pilatus again, with some unexpected challenges…

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T3+
Height gain: 1340 metres
Height loss: 950 metres

Eigenthal – Ober Lauelen - Klimsen – Pilatus – Klimsen – Fräkmüntegg

After our walk over the Chasseron a few weeks ago, my friend from Neuchâtel and I agreed that we should meet up again before we both went off for our summer holidays, with me organising something in the Lucerne area this time. The Pilatus seems an obvious choice, with it being so quickly accessible and offering so many different routes up and down.

The day starts with a mad dash to get the bus to Eigenthal. My friend’s train from Olten arrives four minutes late, meaning that we only have one minute to run to the bus, which inevitably is waiting at the furthest end of the bus station. We make it just as the driver is starting the engine; it was a very close thing.

At Eigenthal, where we get off the bus at 9:45, it’s pleasantly cool. The heatwave of the last few weeks has finally subsided, giving way to more changeable, rather windy weather, but still with perfect temperatures for walking. Rain is forecast for later in the day, but the satellite animation on the weather site seems to indicate that we should be OK until at least five in the afternoon, by which time we should have reached the post-hike beer stage of the day.

All very lush and green at the start of the walk
The walk starts gently uphill, with pretty views through openings in the trees down to the valley bottom and the hills on its far side. My friend is surprised by how green everything is here; in Neuchâtel, she tells me, everything has been parched brown for weeks now. Maybe there is just more general humidity in the air here; we certainly have not had much rain to speak of over the last month.

Beyond the saddle of Chraigütsch, the path begins to climb more steeply up onto the wooded ridge of the Höchberg. The views become rarer along this section, and each time there is an opening in the trees, the dark cliffs of the Pilatus up ahead have become closer. Bands of dark grey clouds are coming and going across the cliff face; there is a distinct possibility that we may find ourselves walking in fog higher up. We see few other walkers, but there are people here and there, off to the side of the path, looking for berries in the undergrowth. The path levels out for a while, drops down a bit, climbs a bit more, crosses a more open and marshy area where white cotton grass is blowing in the wind, then drops down to the attractively-situated Alpine farm of Ober Lauelen, at 1332 metres above sea level.

In the forest approaching Ober Lauelen
After Ober Lauelen, the character of what has so far been a gentle stroll changes dramatically. For the next hour, we climb very steeply up a narrow, sometimes slightly exposed path in the shadow of looming cliffs and scree slopes. I have done this part of the walk before, but the path is interesting and I am quite happy to walk it again. There are more people around now, many of whom are climbing faster than us. Being still a fair way off my full “summer fitness”, I am glad of the opportunity to rest which is offered by stopping to let others overtake us. Finally we make it to the saddle below the Klimsenhorn, with its whitewashed chapel and panoramic views down towards the lake… except that the constantly moving cloud never quite allows us to see the view in all its glory. We have climbed about 900 metres in a little more than two and a half hours, which is not bad going at all.

We have a slightly chilly lunch sitting on one of the wooden benches in front of the chapel. The sun has hidden itself behind the thickening cloud and it is quite windy here; for the first time in what seems like months, I put on a fleece… albeit only a very thin, lightweight one. With the renewed energy brought on by salami and sandwiches, we set off again for the final 200 metres to the top, up a broad path that zigzags steeply up through bands of shaly rock. As we near the top, we pass more and more people whose shoes and clothing are totally unadapted to the terrain; presumably tourists who have come up the mountain by train and decided to walk down “because it’s easier that way”. I wonder how many of them make it all the way down and how many give up and turn back after ten minutes.

Looking down on Lake Lucerne from the Klimsen saddle
We arrive at Pilatus-Kulm by a tunnel that has been dug into the rock, with large openings giving views that plunge steeply down the pastures below, with the town of Lucerne and the lake beyond. This tunnel ends abruptly, and rather disconcertingly, emerging into tourist paradise between a self-service restaurant and a band that is playing folksy Alpine tunes for the crowds.

Out in the fresh air again, we spend a pleasant half hour on the rather windy terrace of the Pilatus Kulm hotel, where every table is occupied by little groups of walkers huddled in fleeces, or by tourists who look like they wished they were also huddled in fleeces. I order an ice cream and am a bit shocked to pay 7 CHF for two balls of sorbet… but maybe I have unrealistic expectations, it's probably a bit unfair to compare Pilatus Kulm with the Italian ice-cream stall outside the office canteen, where the same thing costs only a quarter the price.

Now we have to decide how we go back down. There are all sorts of options available, ranging from the zero-effort cogwheel train to the full-blown 1600 metres of descent down to the lake at Alpnachstad. Been there, done that, my knees are still complaining, so I rule that one out immediately. In the end, we agree on a route that I have not done before, which will take us down to Fräkmüntegg, then eventually back to our starting point at Eigenthal. We retrace our steps back down to the Klimsen saddle and its chapel, and then set off down a stony path signposted to Fräkmüntegg.

For some reason, I expect this path to be easy… how wrong I am! At first, it is indeed easy enough, if not really comfortable underfoot. The path zigzags down beneath high, black cliffs, following the bottom of a steep scree gully. The scree is too big to run down, but not big enough to be stable underfoot, and, with the gradient consistently steep, progress is rather awkward. Up above on a rocky bluff, the pylon of the cable car that runs up from Fräkmüntegg to Pilatus Kulm seems to be standing at an insane angle, almost 45 degrees to the vertical at a guess. It looks impossible, but presumably this is the angle that gives the most resistance to the stress of the passing cabins which glide soundlessly overhead every five or six minutes.

We reach the bottom of the scree and slightly flatter ground, where I can see the path running harmlessly off eastwards across grassy slopes. It looks like we have reached easier ground… except that this is not our path! We reach a junction, where a signpost points us off in the opposite direction from the nicely enticing route that we have been looking at.

"We don't really want to do this, do we?"... one of the most exposed passages
Immediately, things become much more serious. Now following the western side of the valley, the path climbs up onto a rocky ledge which traverses above a stone-chocked dry stream bed. It is very narrow, somewhat exposed (although the drop is not very large), and there is nothing to hold on to except bushes. I take a couple of steps out onto the ledge, decide that I don't like it very much and reverse clumsily back onto more stable ground. But I have spotted a workaround: by scrambling down into the gully and out again on the other side, I can avoid the obstacle. Meanwhile, my friend skips across the ledge as though it was a football pitch. Two walkers arrive from the opposite direction and, expecting a reassuring answer, I ask them if there are any other exposed or difficult passages. I do not get the hoped-for answer: yes, says the man, there are; you have to do a bit of climbing, the worst bit is right at the end.

I give my friend an imploring, "we don't really want to do this, do we?" look. After all, if we get all the way to "the worst bit" and have to turn back, we will have wasted a lot of time and energy that could be spent enjoying a cold beer. But she does not seem to be very well trained in interpreting imploring looks (I will have to work on this), and says something like "Right, shall we give it a go?" To which there is not much to answer.

In the end, it turns out to be fun. There are indeed many exposed sections as the path, very narrow, twists its way down through bands of rock towards the pastures below, tantalizingly close but at the same time still a long way off. There are many places where we have to scramble down steep rocky steps of ten metres high or more. However, almost all the potentially dangerous places are well secured with fixed cables, and as I progress, I gradually get the hang of it. In places, I scramble down on my backside, in others it's easier to go down backwards, holding on to the cable and seeking out footholds below. My friend, who has sensibly taken the lead, goes down first and then, where necessary, tells me the best holds on which to place my feet. My long legs are a definite advantage, it has to be said. Even in these dry conditions, the rock is slippery, and I would definitely not advise anyone to try this path on a rainy day. It would also be much easier in the opposite direction, as all the most difficult parts would then be tackled uphill rather than down. By the time we come to a second, much more exposed ledge with no securing cable, I am well into my stride and am able to make the three or four exposed steps with only a little hesitation. 

The photo doesn't really do justice... this is almost vertical.

After almost an hour of intense concentration, my leg-muscles are starting to tremble, and I am still nervous about the inevitable "worst bit" that must still be to come. The path flattens out and disappears round a bend… surely this must be the terrible place, as we are almost down to the level of the fields. But no, around the bend there is a bench, and a place where people have clearly been barbecuing… and then the path runs out into gently sloping Alpine pastures, with the sound of Alphorns wafting over from the restaurant at Fräkmüntegg. The "worst bit" is behind us without us even having noticed it. I am, of course, extremely grateful towards my friend for persuading me not to turn back; it's the kind of route that I would never have attempted on my own and which, as a mostly solo walker, I do not get many opportunities to test myself against.

By the time we get to Fräkmüntegg, it is a quarter to four and the sky has turned dark. I reckon it will take us another hour and a half to get back to Eigenthal, and that we risk a) getting wet and b) missing the 17:15 bus. Getting wet would not really matter, but missing the bus would mean a very late arrival home for my Neuchâtel-based friend, so instead we join the long queue of tourists, walkers and families who are waiting for the gondola down to Kriens. We board the gondola just as the first spots of rain start to fall, travelling slowly down as mountain bikers labour up the gravelly roads beneath us. In Kriens we change to the number 1 bus, which brings us to Lucerne train station a perfect eight minutes before my friend's train is due to leave. It has been a day of good company and unexpected challenges, which I managed to overcome: an altogether rewarding day on the Pilatus.

Back on solid ground at Fräkmüntegg

12 July 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 6, from Amden to Walenstadt

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1080 metres
Height loss: 1560 metres

Amden – Betlis – Quinten - Walenstadt

At the end of my previous post, I said that the next few stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail did not really inspire me, and that I would be looking for alternative routes. The seeds of an idea are planted in my mind by a colleague who wants me to join her for a walk along the north side of the Walensee. It's a hike that I have done before, but I am happy to do it again, and it gives me a plan for the next few stages: a complete walk round the Walensee, then over to the Klöntal and onwards to the Muotatal, skirting round the Mythens and finally over the Rigi to rejoin the main route at Lucerne. It's not exactly the most direct route, and walking from Amden to Walenstadt will actually take me further away from my ultimate destination, but why not after all…

Another very hot day is forecast, and in order to have an early start without having to get up at the crack of dawn, we decide to go to Amden by car. It means we will have to get back there from Walenstadt by train and bus at the end of the walk, but we gain a good hour overall. My car appreciates the airing as well; it's only about the fourth time it has been allowed out of the garage since Christmas!

The Walensee walk is normally done from Weesen to Walenstadt or vice-versa, but so as to keep the continuity of my longer route, I insist on us starting from Amden, 500 metres higher up on the sunny, south-facing hillside above the lake. It means that the hike starts with a substantial descent, but it proves to be a good choice as the scenery is very pretty indeed. As we descend steeply, first on a minor road, then on grassy paths, we look out across foreground fields and red-roofed barns towards the higher hills on the far side of the lake, dominated by the 2441-metre Mürchtenstock. The path drops down into an unexpectedly deep gorge, crossing the stream at its bottom on a footbridge before climbing back up below dark, grey cliffs. Back out in the sunlight, the descent continues down a pretty path between dry-stone walls, an old mule track by the look of it, with time-worn, overgrown paving stones underfoot.

Looking across to the Mürchtenstock from Amden
A long section in woodland brings some welcome respite from the direct sunlight; it may only be ten in the morning but the temperature is already making fast progress towards the 30 degree mark. Occasional breaks in the trees open up vertiginous views down to the lake, 250 very steep metres below. The unexpected but unmistakable call of peacocks signals the presence of civilisation and the end of this long, steep descent. We emerge onto a little lane by a restaurant bearing the name of Paradiesli (little paradise): most appropriate given the tranquil setting and the lovely views. There are indeed peacocks in paradise; two of them, in a large compound across the lane from the restaurant.

Here we rejoin the main path that comes up from Weesen; the rest of the walk is familiar territory and already described on this site, so I will not go into great detail in describing it again. We make the short detour to the Seerenbachfälle, so impressive when I was last here two years ago and, I assure my friend, well worth the extra 15 minutes' walk. But we are disappointed: the falls have completely dried up, and only damp patches on the cliffs high above show where the water would have been rushing down were we not in the middle of a heatwave. The route is very popular; we pass a constant stream of walkers coming the other way, and are continually overtaking or being overtaken by others going in the same direction as us. Many of them look to be suffering from the heat, and look every bit as hot and sweaty as I feel. Others appear to be perfectly fresh, as though they had just stepped out of their morning shower; how they manage this in such hot conditions I have no idea… I just know it's unfair. 

The relative coolness of the shady sections is most welcome
Having dropped down from an altitude of 900 metres at Amden to 499 below the Seerenbach waterfall, the path now climbs, in fits and starts, back up to 600 metres, before dropping down to Quinten on the lakeside at 400. This descent is steep and rocky; the path picks its way between cliffs and slightly exposed in places though handrails and metal chains ensure that there would be no danger in the event of a slip.

We reach Quinten at lunchtime, having been walking for a little less than three hours. The tiny village, inaccessible except on foot or by boat, enjoys a particularly sunny location and has an almost Provençal feel to it, with palms and banana trees in the gardens, and hollyhocks growing up the walls of the houses and barns. We stop for a beer and a plate of cold meat at one of the two restaurants there, leaving again for the second half of the walk at half past twelve. For a while now, the path stays closer to the shore of the lake; occasionally climbing up a few dozen metres, then dropping back down to the lakeside again. From down below, the sound of people splashing in the water and the smell of grilling meat waft up. 

Now for the day's physical challenge: having descended one last time to the lakeside, the path begins the 400-metre climb up to Garadur and Engen. It's steep, I have warned my friend, remembering it having been a knee-crunching descent when doing the walk in the opposite direction. She has a tendency to walk fast and not to slow down when going uphill; in this heat, this is something that I cannot do, so I go in front and set a nice, slow pace. We have 400 metres to climb, it's going to take an hour. The path zigzags up through trees, occasionally breaking out into clearings which bring false hope that we have reached the top. After about 40 minutes we stop to drink and munch a few nuts, then continue up further zigzags until finally, exactly one hour after starting the climb, we reach open, flatter ground. Above us, the sheer, rocky faces of the Churfirsten rear hugely up into the blue sky. 

The Churfirsten seen from Engen
Having reached the heady altitude of 833 metres, the only way is down… this walk is very much about ups and downs. This last downhill stretch is a long one, all the way back down to lake level along a gravelly, not particularly interesting forest track. A bit more than two and a half hours after leaving Quinten, we make it to the beach at Walenstadt, where hundreds of people are sunbathing, swimming, barbecuing and drinking beer in the hot sun. It's a further 20 minutes' walk to the station, and to a welcome ice-cream while waiting for the train.

A short train ride to Ziegelbrücke, a perfect connection to the bus, and 40 minutes later we are back at Amden, our starting point. We drive back down to the valley and the motorway… the thermometer in the car tells us that the outside temperature is 31.5 degrees. Thankfully, it has been a largely shady walk!

05 July 2015

Too hot for the Faulhorn

Time: 3 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 570 metres
Height loss: 570 metres

Schynige Platte – Oberberghorn – Laucheren - Schynige Platte

I don't think I really realized how hot it was until Saturday. Leaving home early in the morning, working in air-conditioned offices and coming home to a shady, east-facing balcony in the evening, I had been spared from the worst of it. Until Saturday, when it suddenly hit me.

With an even hotter Sunday expected, the only way out seems to be upwards, and I look for a hike that will enable me to start from 2,000 metres or higher, with no physical effort needed to get to that starting altitude. The Faulhorn seems like a good option: the classic route – which I already walked some ten years ago – starts from just below 2,000 metres, then climbs in a not too strenuous manner up to the summit at 2,600. Surely at that kind of altitude, the temperature will be more bearable…

I get up very early, and by 7 o'clock am on the train. It's a long way to the walk's starting point at Schynige Platte though, and it's 10:30 before I am ready to start walking. Interlaken Ost station is crowded with Chinese and Japanese tourists, but strangely, none of them change to the Schynige Platte train at Wilderswil. Pretty much everyone on the little cogwheel train, which crawls up the mountainside at walking pace, is either American, British, Swiss or French. It's really odd how, in the same valley, whole nations of tourists flock to certain sights, but totally ignore others that are only a few miles away.

The Lauterbrunnen valley seen from Schynige Platte
The walk starts easily enough. From the station at Schynige Platte, the path, marked as "Panoramaweg", initially runs round the northern side of a rocky tower, the Gumihorn. In the shade below the cliffs, the heat is very definitely bearable; I seem to have made a good choice. Even so, I still think that the two trail-runners who puff and pant past me are slightly mad… And it's not long before I begin to question my own sanity, as the path leaves the shade and begins to climb simultaneously. It is very, very hot indeed.

I reach the day's first mini-summit, marked on the map as Tuba and on the signposts as Daube. Either way, its altitude is 2067 metres, and the view in all directions is superb. To the north, the mountain drops away precipitously to the turquoise waters of the Brienzersee. Southwards and eastwards things are less abrupt, with undulating green pastures that draw the eye towards the most majestic of horizons: Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau, Schreckhorn are all lined up there, the view only marginally spoiled by a fairly thick heat haze. To the west, the Niesen and Stockhorn poke up in the distance like long-lost, half-forgotten friends: it's been a long time since I was in this part of the country.

From Tuba, the path heads off north-eastwards down a fairly narrow ridge. I would not call it vertiginous by any means, but there is a drop on both sides, and the drop to the left is vertical. However, the path keeps slightly below the crest of the ridge on the somewhat gentler southern side. Now, the next objective appears; the rocky, seemingly unassailable Oberberghorn. The closer it gets, the more intimidating it looks, until all is revealed… there are stairs to the top! Leaving the main path, I zigzag up a stony slope to the foot of a great cleft in the face of the mountain. Three flights of steep wooden stairs have been built into this cleft, enabling mere walkers like me to reach the 2,069-metre summit above. A German woman is coming down the stairs very slowly, clearly terrified, being either encouraged or pestered by her companion, according to your point of view. And although the stairs are no steeper than those leading to the dormitory of many an Alpine Club hut, an added challenge is given by the fact that the wooden handrails have become separated from their posts, and wobble wildly when I try to use them to haul myself up. They certainly would not be of much help if used to try to arrest a fall… someone needs to get up to the Oberberghorn with a hammer and nails!

The apparently unassailable Oberberghorn
The stairs exhaust me, and I reach the summit drained of energy; the heat is really taking its toll. I have brought three litres of water with me, and after an hour's walking have already made good progress in terms of emptying the first 1.5 litre bottle. I go back down the stairs and zigzags to the main path, which now continues more or less level, climbing gently along the flank of a lovely little valley. The view south-westwards is particularly nice here, looking out across a carpet of yellow flowers, then over the roofs of the farm buildings of Oberberg to the mighty peaks on the horizon.

Looking back to the Oberberghorn and onwards to the south-west
Another staircase, solid metal this time, brings me to a junction of several paths at Laucheren. Here, a signpost tells me that it is three and a half hours to the Faulhorn, and five hours to the cable car station at First, the endpoint of the walk. It's already midday; the panoramic detour to the Tuba and Oberberghorn have cost me an hour, and I start to resign myself to the fact that I will not finish the walk. It would mean pushing myself to be sure of not missing the last cable car, and frankly, in these conditions, I am physically not capable of increasing my pace. Every little uphill section is sweaty torture; my body feels heavy, like a dead weight.

There are numerous walkers on the path, and everywhere, groups of people are seeking out the tiniest bush or overhand, desperately looking for half a square metre of shade to eat their lunch. I carry on for a bit, pass a little saddle where a big group of English-speaking walkers is eating, then drop down into a stony valley and struggle back up again to a notch in the next ridge, marked on the map as Güwtürli, 2028 m. Here, there is a little bit of shade; not enough to stretch out in, but at least sufficient for me to eat my lunch leaning against a rock, in the company of two other walkers who were on the same train as me up from Wilderswil. All the time, as I eat, walkers continue to pass by in twos, threes and bigger groups, including some very young children. They all seem less affected by the heat than me.

Two views of the Schreckhorn
I finish eating at one o'clock, and decide to turn back. Apart from anything else, the sky is starting to take on an ominous, greyish-purple colour, and the grey is advancing very fast. The last thing I want is to have to force the pace to escape from a thunderstorm, and I suspect that those who have continued for the full five hours will end up wet. I retrace my steps to Laucheren, then take the more direct, lower level path back to Schnynige Platte, which I reach at about a quarter to three. I have just missed a train, which gives me a good excuse for a refreshing beer in the shade while waiting for the next one. By the time I get home, I will have drunk a total of three and a half litres without needing to pass water… why can't it be like that in the pub in the evening?

As the train leaves for its slow journey back to the valley, it starts to rain. The shower doesn't last long, but everyone in the train looks at it in wonder, as though a miracle has happened. I get talking to an English couple, who are camping in Interlaken. They arrived here on the first day of the heatwave, totally unequipped for it, having packed all the usual things that you would pack for early summer hiking at 2,500 metres: fleeces, waterproofs, warm jackets and so on.

The Bernese royal family: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau
Back at Interlaken Ost, where I have to wait half an hour between trains, a large group of about 20 Japanese tourists is being made by their tour guide to line up on the platform, two by two, like primary school children. One of the group, a young woman, is wearing a T-shirt that bears the message "MERRY CHRISTMAS". On what must be the hottest day for ten years, this must surely qualify as ironic humour… and I have to feel sorry for Santa, with his heavy fur coat and bushy beard!

29 June 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 5, from Stein to Amden

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1050 metres
Height loss: 1000 metres

Stein – Vorder Höhi – Gulmen – Hinter Höhi – Niederschlag - Amden

For the last time, I make the long, almost three-hour journey to eastern Switzerland. The starting point of subsequent stages of my walk from Lake Constance to Lake Geneva will be closer to home, for which I will be thankful. It’s worth the early start and the long train ride though, as today’s walk is superb from start to finish.

Some fairly extreme temperatures are forecast for the coming days, but at 10:15 on Sunday morning in Stein, the weather is perfect for walking, with a mostly clear sky and just a few cumulus clouds to break up the uniformity of the blue. I fill up my water bottles from a fountain in the village centre, then set off slowly up a lane that climbs gently southwards, heading towards the rocky bumps of the Goggeien, which border the right-hand edge the Dürrenbach valley. Looking back, the view gradually opens up towards the Risipass, over which I struggled in a heatwave on the previous stage. The pass looks very low and easy from here, and the sight of it makes me all the more puzzled as to how exhausted it left me three weekends ago.

Very soon, at a bend in the lane, a path strikes off to the left, towards the Dürrenbach stream that runs down the centre of the valley. The valley bottom is wooded, and although the gradient now steepens, the shade takes the edge off the heat and makes for pleasant walking. The only annoying factor is the presence (surprisingly, as there are no cows in the immediate vicinity) of numerous horseflies, which home in on me every time I try to stop to take a photo or drink. I suspect I will be covered in itching bumps tomorrow, and this proves to be the case: something even managed to get inside one of my socks and bite me on the ankle. The path climbs alongside the stream, which runs prettily over a series of waterfalls. Although these are clearly man-made, they blend in very well with the landscape, being constructed from big blocks of weathered, moss-covered stone that look like they have been here for a long time. After a while, the official National Route No.3 waymarking leaves the stream, veering off to the right into fields. I decide to carry on up the riverside path though, preferring to stay in the shade. 

One of the many little waterfalls on the climb from Stein
I reach the top of the waterfalls at a farm marked on the map as Badhus, at an altitude of 1194 metres, where there are no bathing-huts to be seen despite the name. I am satisfied with my progress; I have already gained almost 400 metres in a little over an hour. Gradually the landscape changes, with the forest giving way to more open meadows and occasional thickets of trees. The gradient, which has been fairly constant ever since the start of the walk, now eases off, with a succession of flatter sections and short climbs making for easy walking. The Säntis range, which has been completely invisible so far today, now appears to the north-east, already a surprising distance away considering that I was right at its foot on the previous stage of the walk. 

View back to the Säntis from Schönenboden
At Schönenboden, a grassy pasture with the cliffs of the Gulmen’s northern side for a backdrop, I stop for twenty minutes to sketch the view backwards towards the Säntis and the Stockberg. From here, a new feature of the landscape is the long chain of the Churfirsten, a line of wedge-like peaks that slope up from the Toggenburg valley on this side, before falling away vertically towards the Walensee on their southern side. The effect seen from here is one of a long wave, about to break on a beach.

The Churfirsten seen from Schönenboden
It is only a short climb from Schönenboden to Vorder Höhi, a broad pass at 1537 metres between the Gulmen and the western end of the Churfirsten range, where I arrive after about two hours’ walking. There are several farm buildings at the top of the pass, and quite a few people as well, as several paths converge here. There are new views too; the panorama southwards includes all the mountains of the Glarnerland beyond the Linth valley. Most prominent of them is the Mürchtenstock immediately opposite, imposing despite its relatively low altitude of 2441 metres. A little further away is the much larger mass of the Glärnisch range, its summits half-hidden in the clouds. Further to my left, clouds are also puffing up above the Churfirsten, creating a constantly-changing play of light and shadow across their steep slopes.

I have lunch here, sitting on a wooden bench looking southwards. A small herd of light-brown goats comes and keeps me company, munching away at the grass around me but thankfully paying no attention whatsoever to my sandwiches. The changing light over the Churfirsten encourages me to do another sketch, as a result of which it is half past one by the time I am ready to set off again.

The Churfirsten seen from Vorder Höhi
From my lunch spot, the route of the Alpine Panorama Trail skirts round the southern side of the Gulmen, which seems a bit of a shame. The summit is only a couple of hundred metres above, and is crossed by what looks like an easy path which climbs from Vorder Höhi, then descends to rejoin the main route on the far side of the hill. Although the detour adds an hour or so to the overall length of the walk, it is a variant which I would definitely recommend. Quite a few people seem to be heading up that way and, after packing up my stuff, I follow them. It’s an easy path, steep but not uncomfortably so. The lower part of the path is hard-packed gravel, which very abruptly gives way to pathless pasture after a while. What seems to be the summit appears ahead; a rocky hump that looks like it may involve some scrambling to reach. It turns out not to be the summit though, just an outcrop which the path bypasses easily to the right. A short distance further on, the real top does appear; a broad, grassy slope of a summit with a farm chalet a short distance below the highest point. A Canadian flag flying from a flagpole in front of the chalet adds an exotic touch. 

The view from the 1789-metre summit of the Gulmen is extensive in every direction, although the higher mountains in the southern distance are hidden by a mixture of cloud and heat-haze. The new feature of the view from here is the turquoise water of the Walensee, which now appears far below to the south-west. I settle down for a most enjoyable twenty-minute siesta in the grass just below the summit, while occasional walkers – including several family groups with children – pass by.

Approaching the summit of the Gulmen
The view from the summit of the Gulmen is well worth the climb
The way off the Gulmen on its south-eastern side is considerably steeper than the path up from Vorder Höhi. A narrow path twists and turns down the grassy spur that heads from the summit directly towards the Walensee and the village of Amden below. The path does not make for comfortable going: the hard-baked earth is crumbly and slippery, and the numerous big steps and stones make this potential ankle-spraining territory. This is the only part of today’s walk where good footwear would be really essential. The rather awkward ground underfoot is largely compensated by the views though, and also by the abundant and varied Alpine flowers that are on display. Eventually, at the chalet of Hüttlisboden (where warning notices inform walkers that anyone caught washing themselves or their dogs in the cows' drinking trough will be fined), I rejoin the main path that has come round the base of the mountain.

Various Alpine flowers on the Gulmen
From here, the route makes a great detour of some two kilometres northwards, contouring high above a deep, green valley that runs away southwards towards the villages down below. Across the valley, steep grass slopes plunge down from the Mattstock, avalanche protection barriers stretching out across them to preserve the buildings below. I approach the next chalet, Furggelen, to the sound of Alphorns and yodelling, and am a bit miffed when, on getting closer, the music turns out to be coming from the radio. The path now becomes a broad, stony track which swings westwards, then back southwards again as it runs below the Mattstock. Ahead, silhouetted behind a foreground of conifers, the Glarus mountains away beyond the Walensee make for a dramatic backdrop.

Beyond Vorder Höhi, a short stretch of road walking reminds me that this walk has been almost entirely on paths, with almost no hard surfaces at all. This is in contrast to some of the other stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail, and has definitely increased the enjoyment factor of today’s leg. The little road brings me to a mountain restaurant at 1292 metres, from where a chairlift runs down to Amden, the finishing point of the walk. I am tempted to “cheat” and use this chairlift, but I am in much better shape today than I was on the previous stage, and decide to carry on walking down to Amden. It proves to be a good choice, for the scenery continues to be superb right to the end. The path drops quite steeply, first along the edge of a forest, then across fields fragrant with the smell of freshly-cut hay. Picking its way between farms and barns, the path crosses narrow access roads in several places, but manages to avoid actually following any roads until right back in the centre of Amden, an attractively-situated village on a sunny, south-facing slope above the Walensee. I reach the bus stop at half past four, five minutes before the bus is due. This has definitely been the most scenically enjoyable stage of the walk so far.

Descending towards Amden and the Walensee
Now, having completed five stages across territory that was completely new to me, I need to think about where to go next, as the next few stages of the official route do not inspire me at all. From Amden, the Alpine Panorama trail wanders away eastwards along the flat-bottomed Linth valley, then goes over the Chrüzlistock to Einsiedeln and makes a big detour around the northern end of Lakes Zug and Lucerne. The Linth valley with its motorway and main railway line does not inspire me at all, and I have already walked the Chrüzlistock and the area between Einsiedeln and Lucerne. I need to start looking at my maps…

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21 June 2015

Over the Chasseron, from the Val de Travers to Ste. Croix

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 900 metres
Height loss: 700 metres

Môtiers – Poëta Raisse – Le Chasseron – Ste. Croix

This weekend, I temporarily abandon my long cross-country walk, giving preference to an invitation from a Neuchâtel-based friend, who has suggested a walk from Môtiers in the Val de Travers, up to the 1607-metre summit of the Chasseron, then down the other side to Ste. Croix above Yverdon. It’s a classic walk in the area, one of the first that I did when I arrived in Switzerland in 1998, but I remember it as an interesting hike and am more than happy to go back and do it again.

Depending on which newspaper or website you read, it’s either the longest day of the year, Midsummer’s Day or the first day of summer. What is beyond any doubt is that it’s raining. It’s raining in Lucerne where I catch the train just before eight in the morning, it’s raining in Olten where I change trains half an hour later, and it’s still raining in Biel where I change again. I remember that on three previous occasions, the weather has forced me to abandon this particular hike, and wonder if today will be the fourth time. But by some miracle, the rain stops two minutes before Neuchâtel, where I change trains for the last time and meet my friend, and it’s even dry up in the hills at Môtiers, where we start walking at about 10:15.

Môtiers is a pretty village, its main street lined with beautiful old houses, all in an architectural style very typical of the area. There is an outdoor art exhibition going on, with various “installations” dotted all over the village, and many of the inhabitants seem to have joined in the spirit of the thing by adding quirky touches of decoration to the outsides of their houses. We wonder how such a sleepy village came to be the location for a resolutely modern art event… maybe the dream of a local eccentric that caught on?

Leaving the village, we enter a dark, rather gloomy forest on a stony track that soon takes us into the mouth of the Poëta Raisse gorge, following the course of a dried-up riverbed. The first time I did the walk, in May 1998, I was shocked and disappointed by this waterless riverbed, especially having walked the rushing Areuse gorge a few weeks previously. But in subsequent years, I have walked this section three or four times, and have never seen the slightest trickle of water in the river here. Higher up the gorge, water does appear – though not in any great quantity – so somewhere along the route it must sink underground. 

After an easy start on broad tracks, beyond a slippery wooden footbridge, the path narrows and begins to climb. The next hour’s walking is constantly uphill, though the gradient is never steep enough to be uncomfortable. Old, weathered stone staircases facilitate the steepest parts, and ancient, rusty handrails offer security where the path underfoot becomes narrow and slippery. The limestone of the Jura always seems to be slippery even in dry conditions, and today it is particularly treacherous going, after quite a bit of recent rain.

The damp, mysterious world of the Poëta Raisse gorge
Finally, the path emerges onto flatter ground, exiting from the gorge through a narrow defile between high cliffs into a green, very overgrown valley. Now running more gently uphill, the path winds its way through this pretty landscape of trees and ferns, before leaving the forest at the alp of La Vaux, where an isolated chalet stands up above a flowery clearing, entirely surrounded by forest. A less interesting climb takes us further up beneath conifers until eventually, at 1400 metres, we leave the woods behind for good and continue into more open country. Scenically, this section is not as attractive as I remembered it; although the summit of the Chasseron now appears up ahead, it is an unspectacular hump seen from this side. Only above the farm of La Grandsonne-Dessus, as we start to climb the grassy, boulder-strewn summit ridge, do the views begin to open up in spectacular fashion on all sides. Down below to our left are the Lac de Neuchâtel and the patchwork of fields stretching away beyond the lakeside town of Yverdon. Behind us, coordinated tones of blue-grey hills fade away eastwards; while to the right, the view reaches way away over the border into France. 

Approaching the summit and its restaurant
Lac de Neuchâtel
The area just before the summit of the Chasseron is inhabited by a large herd of brown and white cows, most of which are standing on the path, as Swiss cows usually do. At 13:35, after a little more than three hours’ walking, we reach the top, at the very precise (according to the map) altitude of 1606.6 metres. It really does not feel that we have climbed so far; the succession of steeper bits and flatter bits makes this a very easy 900 metres of height gain. If the north ridge up we have walked is gentle and grassy, the same cannot be said of the mountain’s east side. From the summit, cliffs plunge a hundred metres vertically down into the deep-cut Vallon des Dénériaz, offering numerous vertiginous viewpoints down to the farms below.

Looking down the precipitous east face
There is a restaurant a few metres below the summit, and although I have brought sandwiches, we decide that lunch inside would be a good idea. Although it has stayed dry, the day is cool and there are some fairly menacing clouds away to the west, over the Aiguilles de Baulmes and the cliffs of the Mont d’Or in the distance. A table by the window is a perfect location for steak, chips and a local amber beer from Ste. Croix, with a panoramic view southwards over the lake towards where the Alps would be if it were not so cloudy. We console ourselves by pretending that the clouds stacked up away to the south are really mountains, and that the slightly whiter cloud over there is probably Mont Blanc.

Menacing clouds away to the west... but it stays dry
We spend a leisurely hour and a quarter sitting there before setting off for the much shorter walk down to Ste. Croix. Up ahead, the clouds continue to look menacing, but their menace is never fulfilled, and as we progress, the sun gradually gets the upper hand. To our right, great flower-choked ravines drop steeply away, while the slopes to the left of the ridge are gentle grass, with several ski-lifts coming up from the village of Les Rasses below. The path drops steeply across fields and forest, bringing us after less than an hour and a half to the little town of Ste. Croix. It’s an odd place; an industrial town plonked down in the middle of nowhere, in a bowl of the land at 1,100 metres above sea level. The town looks to have seen better days, with numerous houses, shops and hotels standing empty and abandoned. The station, by contrast, is well-maintained, its little platform decorated with hanging baskets of flowers and recently repainted. The little train arrives, and is soon carrying us back downhill, making a great detour south-westwards to lose altitude as it snakes across the mountainside, before looping back eastwards to bring us to Yverdon, back down at lake level. Even if the clouds obscured the Alpine views, it has been a real pleasure to reacquaint myself with this little corner of the Neuchâtel and Vaud hills. 

Looking back up to the summit, and the hills to the east